Johnson opening doors with his play
It was only six months ago when Eddie Johnson was a surprise addition to the U.S. roster that traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, to take on the Reggae Boyz in the first match of the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. He was brought along by Bruce Arena just to take in the experience of qualifying and playing under adverse conditions in the cauldron of noise that is The Office, as he was one of two players -- Eddie Gaven being the other -- to not even dress for the match.
But after scorching the nets for five goals over three qualifying matches against El Salvador, Panama and Jamaica, the 20-year-old FC Dallas striker has quickly become a weapon of choice for Arena, and looked at as a player who can help the USA right now, before he even reaches the legal drinking age, rather than someday in the future.
Despite the presence of other high-scoring MLS forwards such as Brian Ching, Taylor Twellman, and Josh Wolff in camp, Johnson is slated to start in his first road match in a World Cup qualifier when the U.S. takes on the Soca Warriors here at the Queen's Park Oval on Wednesday afternoon. And that's just fine by Brian McBride, who will likely be his partner-in-crime up front for the American side.
"There's so much to like about him," said the Fulham striker. "He's strong and he has that ability to both run by people and run through people. Eddie's also very strong in the air. You can tell that he's been very well-coached coming up, too, by the type of runs he makes out there.
McBride alluded to Johnson's time spent in the residency program in Bradenton, Fla., under the guidance of John Ellinger, who the former Columbus Crew star said he learned a lot under during his rookie season in MLS back in 1996.
While the lessons learned with the U.S. under-17 national team, as well as the U-20s, U-23s and under the various coaches he has played under in Dallas, have been useful to Johnson, nothing can take the place of the actual life experience of being in the training camps with the full national team and getting his first glimpse at the ups and downs of qualification.
"I find myself feeling more comfortable each and every time I get called in," said Johnson. "It's even easier for me when it's just the MLS guys, since those are the guys I compete against all year and am used to seeing."
Of course, finding the back of the net has helped to up his confidence level, which Johnson said has made him feel as though he belongs in camp, even when he looks around and doesn't see anyone younger than him on the roster.
"I feel that I've earned my chance as much for the way I've played in camp as in the games," he said. "That's where it all starts. That's where you come off the field and know you belong. I'm a lot more relaxed."
Helping to make him feel at ease is McBride, who has the experience of playing in two different World Cups and in the English Premiership.
"It's so easier to play with a guy with that experience," he said. "He directs me out in the field, which is nice because he's done everything in this game and has been in every situation."
Even though the two players are 12 years apart in age and don't have the same sort of physique or speed, Johnson sees a lot of similar traits between he and McBride.
"I hold the ball up, am good in the box and know how to get behind defenders," he said.
McBride mentioned the name of Brian West, his former teammate in Columbus, as a player who had the same type of speed that Johnson has, and added that he's not the fastest player that has ever worn a U.S. jersey, but yet he has the combined strength and breakaway ability that makes him special.
"His ability to pull away from people when they are grappling with you and grabbing at you," said McBride, "is something we probably haven't seen (with the U.S. side)."
And as Arena said Tuesday, we're hardly looking at the finished product right now, as Johnson is still one of the team's least experienced players and is still growing into his body and finding his place within the side.
"He knows his place," said Arena. "He knows he's a young kid. He's very respectful of the veteran players. He's obviously more confident, but he's got a long way to go. He hasn't arrived yet. Hopefully, this will be a good year for him.
"He certainly will get his chances."
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.